Women Artists of the DMV: Maria Verónica San Martín’s “In Their Memory”

DMV Color presents artists’ books, graphic novels, photobooks, and zines by women of African American, Asian American, and Latina heritage with ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia—known locally as the DMV. The works on view depict intimacies of family life, legacies of enslavement, dislocation tied to immigration, changes resulting from rampant development, and more. On view in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) through March 4, 2020.

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Originally from Santiago, Chile, Maria Verónica San Martín (b. 1981) is a New York-based printmaker, sculptor, performance artist, and bookmaker who attended the former Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, D.C. Her evocative artist’s book In Their Memory (2012) is featured in DMV Color. San Martín’s work functions as a tactile form of resistance—it critically examines power structures and the sanitization of historical atrocities.

Maria Verónica San Martín holds up her artist's book In Their Memory

Maria Verónica San Martín holds up her artist’s book In Their Memory; Photo courtesy of the artist

San Martín’s work draws upon Chile’s fraught political history. In Their Memory memorializes the Chilean citizens who were tortured and disappeared under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973–1990). As a result, thousands of Chileans sought asylum in Canada, Sweden, and the U.S., including the DMV area. The full scope of the human rights injustices committed by the regime remains under investigation to this day.

In an interview, San Martín explained her activist approach. “As a second-generation witness of the regime’s atrocities and a first-generation artist experiencing the legacy of the dictatorship on the collective body…my practice rejects the idea of a progressive history with a fixed past.”

In Their Memory invites viewers to grapple with the erasure of the era’s violent political history. Wherever the work travels, it honors and preserves the identities of missing people, along with the resilience of their families. Through archival practices, printmaking, and bookmaking, San Martín also explores the role of collective memory. The flag book structure is both a sculpture and a book immortalizing, through black-and-white portraits and lists of names, the victims of the Pinochet regime.

The process of etching and printing images onto the book’s surface embodies the painful erasure and reappearance of those missing—literally and from the Chilean people’s collective memory. An image of Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda, is printed onto the back. Images of missing Chilean citizens juxtaposed against the government’s seat of power further embodies issues of unjust institutions.

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Maria Verónica San Martín, In Their Memory, 2012

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Maria Verónica San Martín, In Their Memory, 2012

Today, the people of Chile have taken to the streets to protest social inequality. As the country’s economic model was put in place under Pinochet, the dictator’s legacy still looms. In an interview with the LRC, San Martín identified the spike in political engagement among Chileans, especially the youth, as important to transforming economic and social structures that favor the rich and discard the middle class and poor. “When this social crisis arose, there was a [collective] conscious[ness] happening.” In Their Memory is an important vehicle of activism and social justice, connecting Chile’s past to this contemporary moment.

Elizabeth Chung was the fall 2019 Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women Artists of the DMV: Malaka Gharib’s “I Was Their American Dream”

DMV Color presents artists’ books, graphic novels, photobooks, and zines by women of African American, Asian American, and Latina heritage with ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia—known locally as the DMV. The works on view depict intimacies of family life, legacies of enslavement, dislocation tied to immigration, changes resulting from rampant development, and more. On view in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center through March 4, 2020.

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A head shot of author/artist Malaka Gharib. She smiles and wears a red button-up short sleeved shirt and has hear hair braided over her left shoulder.

Malaka Gharib photo by Ben de la Cruz

Washington, D.C., resident Malaka Gharib (b. 1986) is an editor at NPR, co-founder of the D.C. Art Book Fair, and zine artist. Her graphic memoir I Was Their American Dream (Clarkson Potter, 2019), chronicles her multicultural upbringing as the daughter of a Filipino Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. From her multiethnic hometown in suburban Los Angeles to the majority white upstate New York town where she attended college, Gharib constantly negotiated between her Filipino and Egyptian heritage—and the ideals of white America. “What are you?” is a question the artist explores with heartfelt insight and humor in this joyous tribute to her immigrant family.

The intricacies of family life and cultural tensions are major themes throughout DMV Color, and Gharib addresses them with nuance and authenticity. In playful red, white, and blue illustrations, Gharib depicts navigating clashing familial relationships, cultural values, religion, and food. Even within her high school’s diverse cultural pool, Gharib’s own ethnic ambiguity and fascination with white people in popular culture earned her a label of “white-washed” and treatment as a misfit. To be “normal” was to be white, according to teenage Gharib. Eventually, she found her stride as part of a motley, punk-loving, creative crew. She also learned to blend her family’s distinct cultures together, creating an identity all her own. Reading like a conversation with a close friend, this is the story all children of immigrants might have wished they had growing up.

Interior detail from "I Was Their American Dream" which depicts, in cartoon format, the author's Microaggressions Bingo interactive spread.

Interior detail from I Was Their American Dream; Copyright © 2019 by Malaka Gharib; Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Gharib’s memoir is delightfully designed, featuring interactive elements including a family recipe for the Filipino soup monggo, a cheeky-yet-pointed bingo chart of microaggressions, and a paper doll of the author with various outfits that highlight her code-switching in college. Her simple and unique character designs reject racial caricaturing, reimagining race with a refreshing lens. In one section, Gharib’s renderings of her high school classmates’ yearbook pictures represent the diversity of her school without relying on stereotypical depictions. The artist flatly rejects monolithic narratives and depictions of immigrants and their families.

In an interview with the Asian Journal, Gharib explained how the negative, one-dimensional, anti-immigrant rhetoric of 2016 catalyzed her to write the memoir. “I thought about my dad who liked gardening and loved the movie Forrest Gump. He’s totally harmless. I wanted to correct the narrative that I was seeing.” In I Was Their American Dream, Gharib invites readers on a journey into her colorful world and leaves us with renewed empathy and understanding.

Elizabeth Chung is the fall 2019 Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Now Open: DMV Color

Elizabeth Catlett, Walking Blindly, 1992; Lithograph on paper, 22 3/4 x 18 3/4 in.; NMWA, purchased with funds donated in memory of Florence Davis by her family, friends, and the Women’s Committee of the NMWA

Washington, D.C., and its surroundings have long been home to a rich community of artists of color, including those born and raised here and others who built connections to the region—some while attending area art schools and universities, or while living here temporarily with military families. DMV Color, now on view in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC), features an eclectic assortment of contemporary works by women of African American, Asian American, and Latina heritage with ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia—known locally as the DMV. The artists’ books, graphic novels, photobooks, and zines on view depict intimacies of family life, legacies of enslavement, dislocation tied to immigration, changes resulting from rampant development, and other topics that illustrate facets of life in the DMV.

In a recent interview with Sasha-Ann Simons of the Kojo Nnamdi Show, LRC Director Lynora Williams noted the rich artistic exchange occurring in the region. “This is a hardworking region, and no one works harder than women of color,” she said. “It affects their ability to promote their art. For NMWA to have the honor of sharing the art of these women is very exciting.”

Global Heritages

Washington, D.C., and its extended surroundings have long welcomed artists of African, Asian, Native, and Latinx heritage. This history stretches from the 1700s and earlier, to the influx of formerly enslaved African Americans who flocked here during the Civil War and Reconstruction. More recently, immigrants from East, West, Central, and Southern Africa; Central and South America; Central Asia; the Middle East; Southeast Asia; and other regions have settled in the DMV—many fleeing armed conflicts, repressive governments, or economic crises. Women of diverse heritages and DMV experiences, often united by a desire to be freed of restrictive social norms, have learned from and inspired one another in their creative endeavors.

Featured Artists

The 19 artists in DMV Color convey their identities in a wide variety of formats. Signifiers such as food, the admonitions of grandmothers, textiles, and childhood memories can be found across the boundaries of culture and medium. Featured artists and works include:

Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! (2016), graphic novel and cookbook

Robin Ha, Cook Korean!, 2016—Ha moved to the U.S. from Korea at 14. Her graphic novel and cookbook contains recipes, colorful illustrations, and information about the basic ingredients found in a Korean kitchen.

Elizabeth Catlett, Walking Blindly, 1992—Raised in Washington, D.C., Catlett studied at Howard University under artist Loïs Mailou Jones, whose children’s book illustrations are also included in this exhibition. Catlett split her time between New York City and Mexico City, primarily creating prints and sculptures. Her images explore themes of maternity and childhood as well as race, politics, violence, and voice.

Sabrina Barekzai, Afghan Superstitions, Vol. 2, 2016—Incorporating stories that the author heard as a child from friends and family, Barekzai’s zine intersperses Afghan superstitions with photos of Barekzai’s family from the 1980s. Northern Virginia’s Afghan community is believed to be the second largest in the United States.

Visit DMV Color in person to see these works through March 4, 2020.